AMMAN — Amid intensive efforts to contain the fallout of the killing of nine Internal Security (police) officers in the west Daraa town of Muzayrib early this month, a delegation of members of the Central Committee in Daraa—which negotiates with the Syrian government and representatives of Russia, the guarantor of the Summer 2018 “reconciliation” agreement in southern Syria—was attacked by unidentified gunmen on Wednesday afternoon near Muzayrib following a meeting the committee held to discuss security developments in the province. 

The attack resulted in the death of four members of the committee while three other members and their companions were injured. Among the wounded is the prominent commander Mahmoud al-Baradan (Abu Murshed), who represents the western Daraa city of Tafas in the negotiations with the Syrian government and Russia.

According to a member of the Central Committee, which was formed after the government forces took control of southern Syria to complete negotiations with Damascus and implement “reconciliation” measures, the attack took place at the “Conserves Factory” on the outskirts of Muzayrib while the delegation was returning from a meeting that included several negotiating committees in the area. “The operation was carried out by a group of gunmen who opened heavy fire,” the committee member told Syria Direct

ISIS fingerprints, regime mind

Three of the sources who spoke to Syria Direct for this report accused the Islamic State (ISIS) of responsibility for the attack. “Preliminary information indicates that the perpetrators were ISIS-affiliated cells,” a member of the negotiating committee in Tafas told Syria Direct on Wednesday night, adding that “we are going after them now; a military force has headed to their locations in the area.” 

The sources accuse former opposition commander Abu Omar al-Shaghouri of being behind the attack after he joined ISIS. This prompted members of the Central Committee and the “settlement factions” (armed groups formerly part of the opposition until Damascus captured the area) to attack headquarters belonging to al-Shaghouri, who fled Muzayrib hours after the incident. 

The negotiator from Tafas also accused another former opposition commander, Qasem al-Sabihi (Abu Tareq), the perpetrator of the operation that killed nine police officers, of collaborating with al-Shaghouri in attacking the Central Committee. 

However, Al-Shaghouri denied, in comments on social media viewed by Syria Direct, any connection to targeting the Central Committee members. 

Al-Shaghouri was the commander of an armed opposition faction in Daraa province before signing onto a “reconciliation” with the government security forces, under which he joined the “Military Security” apparatus. Since then, he has been known, as sources told Syria Direct, for his “good” relationship with the Russian military police in the province, including banqueting Russian military police officers with the presence of the regime officers.” 

On Thursday morning, the settlement factions controlling Muzayrib and Tafas imposed a complete curfew on the two towns for what they called “security reasons,” as well as pursuing individuals believed to be affiliated with ISIS. 

Nonetheless, one senior military commander among former opposition factions in Daraa’s western countryside believes that “the attack was probably executed by ISIS, but the main driver for it is the regime.” 

“There are suspicious deals that took place after the settlement,” he told Syria Direct, “when the regime released ISIS commanders in the Yarmouk Basin [in southwest Daraa], and these people are known to us.” 

A key to Iranian incursion

Last Monday, several commanders and officers with the security forces and government forces met with members of the Central Committee in Daraa and commanders of the settlement factions in the west Daraa town of al-Ajami to discuss a mechanism to prevent a military operation expected since the killing of policemen in Muzayrib. 

The meeting was attended by Major-General Hussam Luqa, head of the Security Committee in southern Syria, Brigadier-General Loai al-Ali, head of the Military Security branch in Suwayda province, and Colonel Ghiath Dalla, commander of Brigade 42 (al-Ghiath Forces) in the 4th Division. Led by Maher al-Assad, the 4th Division is considered the spearhead of the military buildup which arrived in Daraa recently. 

Two members of the Central Committee who attended the meeting told Syria Direct that an agreement had been reached to “set up  joint military points from the 4th Division and local fighters who have reconciled and joined their ranks” in western Daraa, to “secure the Zayzoun camp road and the regime’s military barracks in the area.” The road is a major supply line for the government forces in the Yarmouk Basin. 

It was also agreed to “intensify the deployment of military checkpoints in the areas where assassinations occur,” provided that the deployment of military forces from outside the area be limited to the outskirts of west Daraa cities and towns. 

Iranian-backed and 4th Division troops began to deploy in the western countryside of Daraa province Saturday May 30, as per the terms of the agreement with the Central Committee. 

One negotiator from Daraa’s western countryside accused what he described as “the Iranian wing in the regime” of being behind the operation that targeted the Central Committee members. “The results of the latest agreement [in al-Ajami last Monday] were not satisfactory to the 4th Division,” he told Syria Direct, “and for that reason, it aimed to attack the negotiating team, which is an obstacle to the Iranian project.”

The 4th, 5th and 15th-Special Forces Divisions alongside Air Force Intelligence are considered to be Iranian arms within the government military and security institutions, who are “pushing” for a broad military operation in southern Syria that would allow Tehran to penetrate the strategic western countryside of Daraa close to the Israeli border and the northwest Jordanian border. 

Mounting assassinations

Nearly two years into the Russia-brokered reconciliation agreement between Damascus and opposition factions in southern Syria, rampant insecurity remains the main feature of the region. This is particularly true of Daraa province, where assassinations and kidnappings have hardly lessened, and target both civilians and soldiers loyal to Damascus and those opposed to it. 

The Daraa Martyrs Documentation Office, a local documenting group, has recorded 27 assassination operations in April leading to 22 deaths, and 34 assassinations since the beginning of May leading to 45 deaths, a member of the Office, Omar al-Hariri, told Syria Direct. These figures include the killing of security forces, government forces, (former) opposition forces and civilians. 

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.